When the going gets tough, the tough get BENTO!
Seriously. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, just hearing the word, “bento,” makes me happy. It’s childhood, Hawai’i, and the most ono-licious comfort food all lovingly packed in the perfect box.
Who can resist those perfect size portions of rice (or maybe musubi with ume), chicken katsu, beef teriyaki, nishime, and kamaboko? There is something so very reassuring and personal about a little meal just for one, its ingredients carefully chosen for their complementary tastes, textures, and colors.
Lunch lunch lunch!
*licks lips and rubs tummy*
You probably know that besides being good to eat, o-bento is quite a popular art form these days, with many cookbooks, blogs, and websites offering an endless array of highly imaginative ideas solely devoted to creating bento that are beautiful, whimsical, and/or unusual. Not surprising, since the Japanese have always valued the aesthetics of cuisine, with studied presentation being an essential component of the total dining experience. Why not take it as far as it will go?
Charaben, a particular form of decorated bento featuring people, popular media characters, animals, or plants, originated with mothers seeking a creative outlet, who also wanted to encourage their children to eat different types of foods. It’s often referred to as “kawaii bento” (cute bento). In my mind, the Japanese have always had the market cornered on this particular brand of cuteness, but it’s certainly exciting to see bentoistes from different parts of the world channeling their energies into creating all that is cute in a compact container.
The bentos of my childhood were not so elaborately decorated, but their flavors and essence — homemade food seasoned with love — endure as part of Hawai’i's unique culinary history, which includes over a century of Japanese influence beginning with the first migrant plantation workers arriving in the Islands during the late 19th century. They shared their bentos in the fields, children carried their box lunches to school, and to this day, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Hawai’i who doesn’t love some form of bento.
When I visited an elementary school in Hawai’i last year, the librarian handed me a copy of Hawai’i's Bento Box Cookbook: Fun Lunches for Kids by Susan Yuen (Mutual Publishing, 2008). I was happy to see a book dedicated to Hawaiian style bentos, which feels like “home” whenever I open it.
Author Susan Yuen, former sous chef and caterer, first began making these fun bento lunches when her daughter started preschool. What began as an enjoyable hobby turned into two wildly popular Bento Box cookbooks (“2nd Course” published just this year).
Both are chock-a-block full of amazing bento designs (hula girls, surfers, birds, bears, ducks, fish, dogs, cats, bunnies) made primarily with rice, cheese, nori (dried seaweed), kamaboko (fishcake), and the ubiquitous Hawaiian staple, Spam™. Both also contain a good sampling of kid-friendly “Sammies” (sandwiches), and an entire section of mouthwatering recipes reflecting Hawai’i's unique multiethnic culinary heritage (ah, furikake salmon! yakisoba! bean sprout namul!).
Care for a little chicken yakitori and edamame, or maybe a Portuguese sausage frittata or some gyoza? Use a few simple cutter tools, cleverly placed garnishes along with added touches like cocktail picks or cupcake toppers, and you’ve got a visually appealing, nutritionally balanced meal that will satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.
Both books are spiral bound, and each recipe has clear, step-by-step instructions with full color photos on glossy pages. Can’t find some of the ingredients where you live? These are great resource books with enough inspiration to prompt you to think ”outside the box”, have fun improvising, and even plan a few family projects combining art with the pleasures of eating. Highly recommended! Now, please pass me another spam musubi!
♥ Be sure to visit Susan’s blog, where she regularly posts new bentos and provides a list of suggested tools and online sources for purchasing supplies. You can also see lots of video interviews with interesting demonstrations.
♥ This post is brought to you by Fun Food and Family.
♥ More F is for Fall posts can be found here.
*Mermaid with Hotdog Octopus and Japanese Girl with Shoyu Chicken Drumettes spreads posted with permission from Hawaii’s Bento Box Cookbook, copyright © 2008 Mutual Publishing.
**Clown Fish and Sea Anenome with Honey Garlic Chicken and Stir Fry Sauces spreads posted with permission from Hawaii’s Bento Box Cookbook, 2nd Course, copyright © 2010 Mutual Publishing.
***Other bento photos from Susan Yuen’s flickr photostream.
Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.